CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – On the night before having surgery to remove bone spurs in his right ankle last month, Marcus Paige made his way to the basketball court for one last game before being sidelined for eight weeks of recovery.
The arthroscopic surgery, which was performed by Dr. Robert Anderson at the Carolinas Medical Center in Charlotte, succeeded in doing what multiple injuries, including plantar fasciitis, could not last season: keeping Paige on the bench.
“They felt like the surgery went really well,” UNC head coach Roy Williams told InsideCarolina.com at a recent Rams Club Tar Heel Tour event. “Marcus felt great about it. Everybody thinks that it is going to help him out a lot. He is going to be out about eight weeks, but I think that is good for him, too. He wears himself out during the year so he needs a little bit of a break.”
The surgery was performed on Apr. 20, meaning that Paige should be available for UNC’s summer practice sessions set to begin in late June.
The bone spurs didn’t come to light until after the season, according to Paige’s father, Ellis. Not liking the way his ankle felt while playing pickup, Paige had it checked out and the decision was made to go ahead and have surgery so that he would be completely healthy for his senior season.
That would be a welcome change after a physically challenging junior campaign. The plantar fasciitis first appeared in his right foot the week after Christmas and lingered until March. There was also a sprained right ankle against Louisville, followed by a hip pointer against Virginia Tech.
That combination of injuries prompted Paige to joke after UNC’s win over Syracuse in late January that he had superglued the right side of his body back together.
While the statistics underscored his physical ailments – Paige averaged 13.5 points in conference play, down nearly three points from his league scoring average during his All-American season in 2013-14 – his efforts to play through the injuries and dismiss their severity during media interviews disguised their prominence.
Paige’s parents knew that he was in pain during the season, although their son never let on how much he was hurting. Paige told his dad during conference play that once he warmed up, he was okay.
That approach fits the mold of a determined player trying to convince himself that he’s healthy in an attempt to stay on the court and help his team.
“That’s his mentality,” the elder Paige said. “And so I think when he finally got healthy, he was like, ‘Oh, I can push the ball and I can get to the rim or get into the paint.’”
Paige joked with his son that the paint was actually a different color of wood that he should visit some time, but those lighthearted jabs were no longer valid once March arrived and the pain from the plantar fasciitis subsided.
The 2014-15 preseason ACC Player of the Year told reporters late in the year that the first game he played without pain was UNC’s 81-49 win at Georgia Tech on Mar. 3. In the eight games that followed, Paige averaged 17.1 points per game on 45.8 percent shooting, including a 45.5 percent effort from 3-point range (25-of-55), and delivered a 2.4:1 assist-to-turnover ratio.
Playing without pain was a “shocking difference” for the junior point guard, according to his father, who equated his son’s excitement to that of a kid thrilled about a new toy.
The elder Paige highlighted the arc of his son’s career at North Carolina in enabling him to endure to challenges that his third season as a Tar Heel presented.
“By Coach giving him the ball as a freshman, it put him in a situation to prepare him to be able to manage those injuries,” Paige said. “Had he not been in the fire and not known the system as well as he did and not had such a great sophomore year, I don’t think he would have been able to make it through this season with those injuries.”
“I thought he did just enough to maintain the team and stay above water, and then every now and then he was a little successful. He did as much as you can ask of someone who’s hurt.”
If Paige’s sophomore season was a showcase of his talent scoring the ball, his junior year tested his resolve and his leadership skills.
“With Marcus’s limited abilities when he was hurt, I saw him become more of a well-rounded leader, more of a guy that never had to force it,” Paige said. “It’s one thing when you have the ability to do what you can do and then know that you have to do it, but with him being limited, it seemed like he made sure things were run the way they were supposed to be.
“For me, it seemed like the most growth from Marcus probably happened during the time that he was hurt because he’s never been hurt for that long ever in his career.”
It was not necessarily a path any parent would choose for their child, although the experience added another layer of growth to his game heading into his final year at UNC.
“Marcus went to North Carolina because he believes he can get to the Final Four,” Paige said. “Marcus is at North Carolina because he believes he can win the national championship. I truly believe that his goal is to win a national championship, and he believes he can do that.”
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